An alternative route to the Promised Land


NEW YORK, March 20 (JTA) — How is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadahs?

By being a Reconstructionist Haggadah, the first put out by Judaism’s smallest religious denomination since its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, edited one in 1941 as the debut publication of his nascent movement.

The newly published “A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah” was written by rabbis Joy Levitt and Michael Strassfeld, and published by The Reconstructionist Press.

“A Night of Questions” is very Reconstructionist in its orientation, emphasizing group participation and giving voice to many perspectives. While it is radical in much of what it presents, it may make less of a splash than Kaplan’s Haggadah did nearly 60 years ago.

His heavily patriotic Haggadah included the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” and told the Exodus story in Kaplan’s own voice, adding dimension to the human roles played by Moses and Aaron in the Israelites’ liberation.

The new Reconstructionist Haggadah is vastly broader in the number of perspectives it includes than anything Kaplan could have imagined.

Today hundreds of Haggadahs are available, and they are seen as vehicles for bringing many voices to the ritual. Indeed, some have different Haggadahs available — each edited from a different perspective — for each person at their Seder table.

The new Reconstructionist Haggadah may be the first published by a movement that incorporates feminist concepts and two new ways of helping people to imagine themselves in the Exodus story — through a simple play, and a method of interpreting text called Bibliodrama.

This is “the first post-feminist Haggadah,” Levitt said. “It doesn’t only have a woman’s perspective, but assumes the equal role of women both at the table and in the tradition.”

She and Strassfeld gave the prophetess Miriam, Moses’ older sister, a prominent role right from the beginning of the seder, when the Haggadah instructs the leader to set a large goblet filled with spring water at the center of the table to represent the well of Miriam, which miraculously sustained the Israelites during their journey from Egypt to Israel.

Elijah’s Cup, which is also on the table from the start of the seder, stands empty until the end of the ritual meal when participants sing their longing for the messianic era.

“Miriam the prophet calls us to work for, not wait, for that day of messianic redemption,” Strassfeld said. “She’s hope in the present moment, not just hope for the future.”

The feminist perspective is also integrated into the Haggadah through its presentation of two forms for the blessings — the traditional “Baruch Atah,” or blessed are you, which addresses a male-gendered God, and “Nevareich Et,” which is gender-neutral and begins by saying “We bless the …”

Included in the Haggadah are several songs recorded on an accompanying CD that can be purchased separately, including three different songs about Miriam and the black spiritual “Let My People Go.”

The last pages of the volume are devoted to outlining four different seders, each tailored to different needs.

The first, “More Is More,” is the longest, at about a 90-minute running time and is designed for adults and older children.

The second, “Less Is More,” is geared toward younger children and runs half as long before the meal.

The third, “We Were All Slaves in Egypt,” focuses on the universal themes in the seder and would be best used by people who have many non-Jewish guests at their seder.

The last, “Opening the Door for Miriam,” highlights feminist rituals, centering on Miriam’s Cup, in the new Haggadah.

A five-page simple play, featuring the voices of God, Moses, Pharoah and some Israelite slaves, offers a way for young people to get themselves involved in the story.

A Bibliodrama is suggested and explained as well. Bibliodrama, an interpretive technique pioneered by Peter Pitzele, takes a story from the Bible and, with a facilitator, leads people to imagine themselves in different roles. One person might see themselves in the role of Miriam, for instance. Another might want to be Moses, or Aaron, or their mother, or an Israelite slave, or one of the Egyptian slave-masters directing their labor.

The Bibliodrama offers adults a powerful way to get inside the experience of leaving Egypt for an unknown but more promising land.

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